We landed just ten miles shy of our planned destination in the Dominican Republic and instead anchored at La Isabela. We read in our twenty-year old guidebook that cruising boats aren’t supposed to anchor just anywhere, but when we came in around sunset and saw another boat in the bay, we thought we might get through the night without any problems. But then around 8:00pm, we heard a boat pull alongside of us and my heart started pounding. Two guys in fatigues and one in plain clothes boarded our boat asking for paperwork that gave us permission to be anchored there. Of course, we didn’t have anything like that yet and it wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do about it. We asked if we needed to leave and were told they could make up the proper paperwork for us after taking down our information.
The two guys in uniform spoke only Spanish but the other guy spoke English and cut us off each time we tried to say anything other than yes or no. I decided it might be best to pretend I didn’t understand what they were saying in Spanish. This was no problem at all because I absolutely did not understand what they were saying. Are they speaking Spanish? After painstakingly writing down our information, the trio set off to take care of the paperwork, saying they would return in ten minutes. When they came back there were now five guys in the boat, and they let us know they were unable to get our paperwork completed but they had done us the favor of calling ahead to warn the navy in Luperon that we were coming the next day. And could we please offer a tip -maybe $10 or $15-to the man who doesn’t work for the navy but who volunteered to act as our interpreter? As we handed him the smallest bill we had, $20, I finally understood what they were saying when all the guys on board shouted, “It worked!” I figured being intimidated into giving away $20 probably wasn’t the worst outcome when a group of strange men board your boat in the dark in a foreign county. We just hoped we would have enough cash to pay up when we actually went to check in to Luperon in the morning.
Though we had heard that clearing into the country was expensive and complicated, it went pretty smoothly and didn’t cost any more than the Bahamas to enter, $150. It might have been because I was so looking forward to speaking Spanish, or because the harbormaster, Papo, made us feel welcome right away, but checking in was actually kind of fun. We had to visit with four different government officials and submit to two separate boat inspections, but since we didn’t expect a walk in the park we mostly just found it entertaining.
We jumped at the chance to rent a motorcycle from the harbormaster, Papo, the next morning and ended up using it for three days. At first when we were wandering around town, we couldn’t decipher which side of the road people were meant to drive on; there were motorcycles and cars going every which way, but eventually we noticed a right-side-of-the-road pattern. Though renting a bike was inexpensive enough that we each could’ve had our own, I had no interest in enhancing my adventure and was satisfied with hanging on for dear life while Jon steered us around constant obstacles. He decided the best strategy was to throw caution to the wind and just go. Any other behavior, such as slowing down at the intersections to check for oncoming traffic, just seemed to confuse the other drivers.
The chain kept falling off the first motorcycle and the clutch quit working, so we limped back to the dock and Papo gave us a brand new bike instead. We quickly decided to limit ourselves to the well-maintained roads with our shiny new bike and drove about as far as we could in every direction. The highways were rather terrifying, and out of about 1,000 motorcycles with one to three passengers each, I saw two helmets. And two stop signs, which were largely ignored. We braved the main highway only for the 7 minutes necessary to reach 27 Charcos, which are twenty-seven waterfalls that end in twenty-seven little pools you can jump into. The highest waterfall is twenty-five feet and you will be able to watch us jump from it soon.
Going out to eat was so inexpensive that it was much more gratifying to spend our money going out rather than buying food to cook on the boat. It wasn’t hard to convince ourselves that this was the way to go because we’re getting pretty sick of our options for boat meals. And considering we could drink a 22oz Presidente beer for a little over $2 while downloading new episodes of Game of Thrones, it seemed prudent to go out every night as well as most afternoons.
Along with stories about corruption we’d heard rumors of other problems in the country having to do with the conduct of certain older, white male tourists. This bit of information put us in a different frame of mind as we observed our surroundings and made me feel a tad less friendly toward the other white people we saw, which yes indeed, quite curiously all seemed to fit the same description. I don’t normally think the worst of every single, middle-aged American or Canadian male I see but in this case it was hard not to make some assumptions. Especially when we watched a local young woman leave the bar with one such older man, heard the sound of a motorcycle crash moments later followed by everyone running to the street and then her return to the bar, luckily unharmed. As the “crazy white guy” tried to convince her to get back on the bike, her friends’ comments, “it’s not worth it” and “this is no kind of life” made me feel pretty justified in suspecting the motives of the tourists around us.
Though we were having a good time in Luperon, a weather window to move forward presented itself, so we prepared to leave. We had to visit three out of four of the same government officers to check out, including another visit to the boat from the Comandante, which we were told without hesitation was to check for drugs. The Comandante is a naval officer who Jon later described as looking very formidable for such a small man. (Is this how every male’s mind works during introductions? I could take this guy here, but this other guy could probably kill me with his bare hands.) The Comandante and his second perfunctorily checked our boat for drugs. Then we were asked for a tip. “Of course,” we said. “Thank you for not finding any drugs on our boat, here’s ten bucks.” (We were caught without any small bills once again.)
Our overnight trip to Samana was much less pleasant than we anticipated. Instead of settling down, the wind picked up as it grew dark and we had to motorsail along the remaining north coast before we were able to turn and sail around the peninsula late the next morning. Our introduction to Samana was far less friendly and relaxed though slightly more efficient, which was a pretty accurate introduction to the city. The man claiming to be in charge of the harbor for the day (we would meet others) was super rude to me but was not shy at all in telling Jon how he could help him spend his money. He reassured us by saying, “Those things that happened here, they don’t happen anymore. It’s safe now.” Hmm interesting, could you please elaborate?Nope, that’s all he said on that subject.
In town, instead of being asked by each passing motorist if we wanted to rent their personal motorcycle (indicated by pointing down at the motorcycle seat with a simultaneous raise of the eyebrows) we were followed around by people offering to help us find things we had already located and were walking toward. This would start with a friendly greeting, and end with irritation and more resentful tipping. Though the people we sought out ourselves were perfectly nice and helpful, walking down the street at any given time was rather overwhelming, and the anchorage was unpleasant, so we weren’t too bummed about taking the opportunity to cross the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico after only a few days in Samana. We only had to visit the Comandancia and pay $10 for permission to leave the country and enter international waters. We were supposed to receive another visit from the drug police, but when they saw our little rowing dinghy they decide to forego the inspection and just sign our paperwork. And we’d even had our small donation to the military all ready to go. Que triste.